"The simpler you keep it, the better off you’ll be." That was Richie Benaud’s advice to me as a young cricketer. Often, when I spoke to him, he had a helpful suggestion which emanated from a mind that was regularly in lateral thinking mode
“After you Ian,” they were the first words spoken to me by Richie Benaud.
It was 1962 and South Australia had just enjoyed a rare victory over a star-studded New South Wales line-up. Benaud, as the not out batsman, magnanimously stood back to allow Les Favell’s team to walk off the Adelaide Oval first. I was on the field as twelfth man and wasn’t about to leave ahead of the Australian captain and a man whose leadership style I’d admired from afar, but he insisted.
Australia's Richie Benaud in 1960s. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
That story is indicative of Benaud. He was a thorough gentleman and meticulous in his preparation -- I was staggered he knew my name.
He was also a generous man. Not long after the Adelaide Oval experience, a Gray Nicholls bat arrived in the post while I was playing in the Lancashire League. It was from Richie and so began a relationship that only ended after fifty two rewarding years with his sad passing on Friday.
I say rewarding; that was from my perspective but I’m not sure what Benords received in return. Often when I spoke to him or called he had a helpful suggestion, which emanated from a mind that was regularly in lateral thinking mode.
As a young man he advised me; “Ian, it’s (cricket’s) a simple game. The simpler you keep it the better off you’ll be.”
When I became captain I called to explain how a mate had said; “You’ve got the field in the wrong place for (Garry) Sobers.”
He laughed; “There’s no right place for the field when Sobers is going,” he explained.
“All I’d say is you’re wasting a fieldsman putting someone in the gully, he hits the ball in the air in that direction,” he continued, “but it’s six inches off the ground and going like a bullet. No one can catch it.”
When I retired and turned my hand to writing and television, he organised for me to commentate on the BBC -- with whom he’d trained in 1956 — during the 1977 Ashes series. He also suggested (Richie rarely advised), I become a member of the Australian Journalists Association so there would be no objection to me writing columns.
He did offer me advice once. It was the 1976-77 season and we were commentating on the 0-Ten network. Over a drink he told me; “Ian, there’s a better way.”
I was eagerly awaiting his thoughts on how I could improve my commentary, when he expanded; “You don’t have to tell every pest to piss off. There is a better way.”
He listed some options but I don’t think they registered, as I replied; “But sometimes I get a lot of satisfaction from telling someone to piss off, Benords.”
The very next day a strange thing happened. I accepted an invitation to lunch with the officials, where there was an even stranger occurrence; I told a former schoolmaster of mine who’d recently written me a scathing letter, that I’d enjoyed reading his missive.
I walked away feeling buoyant and thinking, Benords is right; “There is a better way.”
When I happily related the incident, he looked at me quizzically and said; “Then how do you explain what happened to me after play?”
Richie had met a mate in the bar at the cricket ground and no sooner had he enjoyed his first sip of wine, than a guy marched over to him and said; “You don’t remember me do you?”
A pause, another sip of wine and then Benaud responded; “Don’t tell me. Just give me a few seconds and I’ll get the name.”
After a couple of exchanges the guy couldn’t contain himself and blurted out his name. “Well piss off then,” was Benaud’s response.
For a man who lived up to his “keep the game simple” advice on the cricket field, he had a propensity for complicating golf. I remember when he proudly announced he’d bought an odometer so he could measure courses and distances. I was quick to remind him that his good friend and five times British Open champion Peter Thomson always said; “It’s a hand and eye game.”
However, he did live up to his “keep it simple” advice as a television commentator and presenter. “Don’t say anything unless you can add to the pictures,” was his mantra as a commentator.
As a presenter, he had that marvelous ability to make it look like everything was progressing without a wrinkle, when in reality all hell was breaking loose in the studio.
In the early days of Wide World of Sports, he was opening the telecast at the Gabba when the set fell forward onto the back of his head.
Without breaking sentence he slowly pushed back with his shoulders to move the set off his head and at that precise moment his watch alarm started buzzing. Maintaining his composure while issuing a perfect sentence, he surreptitiously reached under his cuff and turned off the alarm.
He was the game’s great salesman but he could be hard-hitting when he felt the need. When Greg Chappell ordered brother Trevor to deliver the underarm against New Zealand he was quite critical of the move in his after match summary.
Richie was always welcoming of new commentators but Mark Taylor was rather surprised to receive a note from him after one of his early stints. Taylor had just described the fall of a wicket as a tragedy and when he unfolded the note it simply said; “The sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy.”
It was illuminating to hear people’s comments on Benaud. Occasionally they would say; “I love Richie’s commentary but it’s a pity he hasn’t got a sense of humour.”
I felt like replying; “So you watch television but you don’t listen to it.”
Had a droll sense of humour
His was a droll sense of humour and at times it could border on wicked. We were discussing the unwritten rule of fast bowlers not bouncing fellow speedsters on air, when I brought up an incident where Ray Lindwall hit Englishman Frank ‘Typhoon” Tyson in the head at the SCG in 1954-55.
Tyson had taken a pounding in the first Test at the Gabba as Australia thrashed England. However, the roles were quickly reversed when Tyson took 10 wickets at the SCG after being hit in the head by Lindwall. In conclusion I said; “But you were playing at the SCG that day Richie, what happened?”
He slowly picked up the microphone and said: “It was a mistake,” then gently rested it back on his knee. I was still laughing when, uncharacteristically he raised his microphone again; “I’ll re-phrase that,” he said, “it was a very big mistake.”
Benaud made very few mistakes in his life and he certainly didn’t with his choice of life partner. If anything, wife Daphne is even more organised than Richie and apart from cricket they also had a shared love for ballet and cats, both the animals and the musical.
At his 2007 Hall of Fame induction, Richie finished his speech with a number of thank you’s and concluded with; “And Daphne who is much-loved.”
The same could be said of Richie Benaud — he was much-loved and will be widely and sorely missed.